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Both candidates struggled to articulate meaningful points — except when insulting each other | CBC News

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Both candidates struggled to articulate meaningful points — except when insulting each other | CBC News

U.S. President Joe Biden delivered an uneven performance at Thursday’s debate, while his Republican rival Donald Trump rattled off a series of attacks that included numerous falsehoods, as the two oldest presidential candidates ever clashed on stage ahead of November’s U.S. election. 

The two men traded barbs on abortion, immigration, the war in Ukraine and their handling of the economy as they each sought to shake up what opinion polls show has been a virtually tied race for months.

Biden and Trump were under pressure to display their command of issues and avoid verbal gaffes as they sought a  breakout moment. Biden, in particular, has been dogged by questions about his age and sharpness, while Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and sprawling legal woes remain a vulnerability.

As the debate began, the two men — who have made little secret of their mutual dislike — did not shake hands or acknowledge one another.

But there were plenty more moments in which their bad blood was evident. Each called the other the worst president in history; Biden referred to Trump as a “loser” and a “whiner,” while Trump called Biden a “disaster.” At one point, the rivals bickered over their golf games, with Trump bragging about hitting the ball farther than Biden and Biden retorting that Trump would struggle to carry his own bag.

Inflation and economy

Their first exchange delved into the economy.

Biden spoke softly, in a hoarse voice, as he talked up the economic gains on his watch, saying he rescued it from “free fall” and “chaos” when he took over the presidency from Trump in 2021. He cleared his throat several times.

A person gestures while speaking into a microphone.
Biden gestures during a presidential debate in Atlanta on Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)

Trump listened with a bemused expression but did not try to interrupt, though his microphone was muted while Biden spoke.

When it was his turn to speak, Trump bragged about the state of the economy during his term, saying “everything was rocking good.” He blamed Biden for rising prices that have frustrated Americans.

“Inflation is killing our country,” Trump said. “It’s absolutely killing us.”

Abortion

Biden blamed Trump for eroding abortion rights after the Republican’s three appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court voted to reverse Roe v. Wade, which had recognized a nationwide constitutional right to abortion. The reversal has energized many voters who support abortion rights and it helped power Democratic victories in the 2022 midterms and special elections.

“It’s been a terrible thing what you’ve done,” Biden said, turning to his rival. He pledged to restore the law under Roe if given a second term, but didn’t say how he’d accomplish that. He said the idea of turning abortion laws back to states “is like saying we’re going to turn civil rights back to the states.”

A person gestures while speaking into a micrphone.
Trump gestures during the debate on Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)

Trump said his presidency returned the issue of abortion to the people through state laws. He said he supports abortion ban exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and he repeated his false claim that Biden supports abortion up to and after birth.

“We think the Democrats are the radicals, not the Republicans,” Trump said.

Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot

Trump lied about his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol and tried to deflect by pivoting to other issues.

Pressed on his role, he said he encouraged people to act “peacefully and patriotically,” then changed the subject to launch an attack on former Democratic house Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He said Biden ought to “be ashamed” for the way the Jan. 6 defendants have been handled.

Trump, who has floated the idea of pardons for the Jan. 6 rioters, suggested his supporters who stormed the Capitol were actually peaceful and are now being politically persecuted.

In fact, the rioters engaged in hand-to-hand combat with police and used makeshift weapons to attack officers. More than 1,400 people have been charged with federal offences stemming from the riot, and more than 1,000 of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial.

“The only person who’s on this stage that’s a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now” Biden said of his rival.

Immigration 

Trump said Biden had failed to secure the southern U.S. border, ushering in scores of criminals.

“I call it Biden migrant crime,” he said.

In response, Biden said, “Once again, he’s exaggerating, he’s lying.”

Studies show immigrants do not commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans.

Two people seated at a desk are seen pictured from the side.
Debate moderators Dana Bash, left, and Jake Tapper of CNN listen during the debate. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)

As expected, Trump also leaned heavily on discussing migrant crime. He also said migrants are coming into the U.S. illegally from “mental institutions” and “insane asylums.” He has not provided evidence for that claim, which he has frequently made at rallies. Trump also said he had the “safest border border in history” — a highly questionably claim and a familiar talking point.

Biden has stuck to his talking points on immigration, highlighting a 40 per cent drop in arrests for illegal immigration since issuing an executive order suspending asylum.

War in Ukraine

Trump suggested Russia never would have attacked Ukraine if he had been in office.

“If we had a real president, a president that knew that was respected by Putin, he would have never invaded Ukraine,” he said.

Trump has a long history of positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s toughness, including calling Putin’s tactics in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine “genius” and “very savvy.”

Trump expresses no such warmth for Ukraine or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, most recently calling him a “salesman” this month for the Ukrainian leader’s military aid requests to the United States.

“This place, the whole world, is blowing up under him,” Trump said of Biden. 

“I never heard so much malarkey in my whole life,” Biden retorted.

People at a bar watch a debate on multiple wall-mounted televisions.
People watch the debate in a Chicago bar on Thursday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

NATO

Biden pushed back at Trump bragging about pushing European allies to put more money into defence.

“This is a guy who wants to pull out of NATO,” Biden said, adding that he “got 50 other nations” to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

Biden forcefully responded to Trump’s NATO comments, saying: “He has no idea what the hell he’s talking about.”

‘You’re the sucker’

The current president and his predecessor hadn’t spoken since their last debate weeks before the 2020 presidential election, but their personal animus quickly came to the surface at the debate.

Biden got personal in evoking his son, Beau, who served in Iraq before dying of brain cancer.

The president criticized Trump for reportedly calling Americans killed in battle “suckers and losers.”

Biden told Trump, “My son was not a loser, was not a sucker. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.”

Trump said he never said that and slammed Biden for the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

two men on stage
The current president and his predecessor hadn’t spoken since their last debate weeks before the 2020 presidential election, but their personal animus quickly came to the surface at the debate. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

‘Morals of an alley cat’

Almost 45 minutes into the debate, Biden referenced Trump’s recent felony conviction in a New York hush money trial.

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” he said, referencing the allegations in the case that Trump had sex with a porn actress. 

“I did not have sex with a porn star,” replied Trump, who chose not to testify at his trial.

WATCH | Trump has ‘morals of an alley cat,’ Biden says: 

Biden stumbles on health-care answer as Trump pounces

U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to lose his train of thought during a debate in Atlanta that aired on CNN with former president Donald Trump, saying, ‘Look, we finally beat Medicare.’ Trump responded by saying, ‘He beat it to death.’

Trump retorted that Biden could face criminal charges “when he leaves office,” though there is no evidence of any wrongdoing on Biden’s part. 

“Joe could be a convicted felon with all the things that he’s done,” said Trump, adding of the president, “This man is a criminal.”

Environment

More than an hour into the debate, the candidates were asked about about climate change, which Biden has called an existential crisis and a top priority of his presidency.

Trump, after initially declining to answer on climate, said he wants “absolutely immaculate, clean water and I want absolutely clean air.”

He said that during his administration, “we were using all forms of energy, all forms, everything” and claimed he “had the best environmental numbers ever.” It was unclear what he was referring to.

Biden called climate change the greatest threat to humanity, adding that Trump “didn’t do a darn thing about it.”

Biden cited the 2022 passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which authorizes billions for clean energy. Biden called it the most significant climate legislation ever passed.

Biden loses train of thought

Biden seemed to lose his train of thought while responding to a question about the national debt.

His voice trailing off several times, Biden first referred to “billionaires” as “trillionaires” before correcting himself.

Then, while arguing that the wealthy should pay more tax, he seemed unable to complete his sentence, pausing awkwardly for an extended moment, before ending his thought in a way that sounded nonsensical.

Tax reform would create money to help “strengthen our health-care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I was able to do with the, with the COVID, excuse me, with dealing with everything we had to do with,” Biden said before pausing.

WATCH | Trump pounces on Biden fumble: 

Biden to Trump: ‘You have the morals of an alley cat’

After former U.S. president Donald Trump brought up the criminal conviction of Hunter Biden and accused U.S. President Joe Biden of interfering in the proceedings, Biden called Trump’s claims ‘outrageous’ and ‘simply a lie.’ Biden then brought up Trump’s ongoing criminal and civil legal issues.

“We finally beat Medicare,” Biden said, likely referring to COVID-19.

Trump pounced: “He’s right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.”

Two White House officials said Biden had a cold. But his uneven performance could deepen voter concerns that the president is too old to serve another four-year term.

Age

More than 80 minutes into the debate, Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, were asked about their age and their ability to serve well into their 80s.

Biden, answering in the same hoarse voice he had all night, launched into a litany of policy achievements and noted that Trump is only “three years younger.”

Biden also used the answer to slap at Trump for bad-mouthing the U.S.

“The idea that we are some kind of failing country? I’ve never heard a president talk like that before,” Biden said.

In his retort, Trump bragged about his golf game and said he’s in as good a shape as he was 25 years ago and perhaps “even a little bit lighter.”

Trump avoids affirming he will accept vote results

Though asked three times, Trump also never directly affirmed that he would accept the election results, no matter who wins.

Several times Trump noted that he would accept the results “if it’s a fair and legal and good election,” but wouldn’t give a “yes” or “no” answer to moderator inquiries.

WATCH | Trump will accept 2024 results ‘if it’s a fair and legal and good election’: 

Trump says he’ll accept 2024 results ‘if it’s a fair and legal and good election’

Former U.S. president Donald Trump was repeatedly asked during a debate in Atlanta that aired on CNN if he will accept the results of the 2024 presidential election. During his reply, Trump said he would — on certain conditions — before claiming he wasn’t going to run initially. ‘I would be very happy to be someplace else,’ he said.

The follow-ups came after Trump ultimately denounced political violence as “totally unacceptable.”

After the moderator asked Trump three times whether he would accept the results of the November election, Biden responded that he doubted Trump would, “because you’re such a whiner.”

Biden noted there was no evidence of any widespread fraud in the 2020 election and that multiple courts had dismissed challenges brought by Trump’s campaign.

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